By Bridgette M. Redman
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer

“Let’s voyage through our solar system
Starting with our Sun;
We’ll visit planets, moons and more
Before our journey’s done.”

Thus starts a book of scientific poetry designed to not only make astronomy fun but to inject chemistry, physics, oceanography, humanities and literature.

“Poems of the Planets: Solar System Science in Verse and Prose” is targeted at middle schoolers, offering them fun facts in an accessible way about the solar system.

Author Eric Garen has been a teacher for more than 50 years. He founded companies such as Learning Tree International and Bright Prospect. An astrophotographer, Garen includes his pictures as well as NASA and international space agency photos.

The book contains 20 poems about the solar system, and each one has explanatory footnotes. At 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 19, the book will be featured in CalTech’s “Behind the Book” online series. To make reservations for the free event, visit events.caltech.edu.

In the live interview, Garen will discuss how he combined his love of language and scientific training to create “Poems of the Planets.” He’ll be joined by the book’s science adviser, Katherine de Kleer. He’ll also read and discuss poems.

Origins of his work

Garen said the book came about by accident.

When his children, now in their late 30s, were in elementary school, he started writing poetry for them. Somewhere along the way, he lost the files.

Eight years ago, just before a cross-country trip with his wife to visit their pregnant daughter on Brooklyn for two months, he found the poems.

“I had completely lost track of them,” Garen said. “There they were in the wrong place.”

Among them was a half-finished poem about the solar system. He took it with him and, in between newborn care and laundry duties, he finished it. It became the overview poem that starts the book.

He kept writing until he had a collection of poems about each planet and the solar system’s objects.

“I wondered if I could publish this,” Garen said. “I thought, ‘How do you get books published?’”

He attended the National Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators national convention in New York. After the sessions with publishers and editors, he felt discouraged. They described the lengthy and depressing process.

“I put it on the back burner,” Garen said. “That was eight years ago.”

Last year, a friend of his self-published a novel on Amazon and encouraged Garen to do the same.

Hooking students

While many books designed for students present uniform information about each planet — height, weight, orbit, etc. — Garen chose a different approach.

“In general, I would try to find something that was fairly unique about a given body,” Garen said. “It might be the corrosive atmosphere of Venus or the volcanos on Io or the oceans under frozen ice on Europa. For Mars, for me it is the rovers we have roving around the planet.

“For each body, I tried to identify something unique about it and then focus on that and some obviously related facts.”

Other poems covered Uranus’ moons and its planets named after characters in Shakespearean plays, the wacky behavior of moons inside of Saturn’s rings or that Pluto used to be a planet but now has been demoted.

In the footnotes, elaborated on the poems and connected planetary science to chemistry and the nature of certain molecules, or topics in physics like magnetism and electricity.

He did not limit himself to scientific topics. Because many planetary objects have Roman names, he included bits of history about the Roman empire.

“I just feel like if you can show all these connections, you’re more likely to really excite a kid,” Garen said. “All this is suddenly kind of interesting. It’s a way to get a kid really interested in chemistry or physics and not just space.”

Scientific collaboration

Before Garen published the book, he sought a science adviser. He turned to his alma mater, which was a 6-minute walk from his home — CalTech.

He came across de Kleer, an assistant professor of planetary science and astronomy. De Kleer and her research group investigate the surface environments, atmospheres and thermochemical histories of the planets and satellites.  Her research topics include the surface and atmospheric properties of Jupiter’s moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Calisto.

“I sent her an email and included a few poems,” Garen recalled.

“I asked if she would be interested in doing this, and she was. It was simple.”

She fact-checked it, and everything was accurate.

“In addition to that, she would also make suggestions,” Garen said. “She’d say, ‘Here’s an interesting thing, how about including this or that?’ That really helped flesh out some of the poems, and I would find myself writing additional verses to include what she suggested.”

In one place, de Kleer persuaded him to add a poem about Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. She said the amazing world resembles Earth, with rivers, lakes and seas. The only difference? They are all methane and at much lower temperatures. He titled it “Titan’s Methane Madness.”

“You have huge, chubby raindrops that drop down and increase these incredible lakes, and there are huge mountains of ice carved by these rivers,” Garen said. “She convinced me I should do that poem, and it helped round out the entire collection.”

Launching other books

Garen plans to continue writing poetry.

“I’m hoping if this is successful, maybe I can do other poetry books to introduce other sciences — maybe about atoms or molecules or oceanography and deep-sea creatures, or you name it,” Garen said. “I’ve got a list of about 15 topics I could write on.”

However, first, he wants to see if this book is successful enough to warrant another. Garen said he can quickly write a first draft, but he frequently edits it.

“It’s usually a matter of weeks or even a month that I’ll keep setting it aside for a few days, and they have another look and I’ll see ways to improve it,” Garen said. “These are not by any means world-class poetry, but they’re entertaining.

“It is a really good introduction to the solar system. But more than that, it is a good introduction to many other sciences and humanities topics, from history to geography and even mythology.”